Politically Georgia

Why do so many students believe they are just not cut out for math?

A new study examines the pivotal role that math plays in student achievement, calling it a “key mechanism in the distribution of opportunity. ”

The Mathematics of Opportunity: Rethinking the Role of Math in Educational Equity says that while math requirements are seen as a foundation for academic success, they can also become a filter that stops many students in their educational tracks, especially students of color.

“Misconceptions about math ability — like the assumption that only some kids can learn math — magnify existing inequities in the education system,” said Pamela Burdman, senior project director of Just Equations, project of the Opportunity Institute that is re-conceptualizing the role of mathematics in educational equity. “Math can serve as a foundation for success in school, work, and life, but it can also be wielded in ways that arbitrarily close doors to educational advancement.” 

Among the comments in the study worth considering is this one from Jo Boaler, a Stanford University expert on math education: “Mathematics, more than any other subject, has the power to crush students’ spirits, and many adults do not move on from mathematics experiences in school if they are negative.”

Georgia has long debated how to teach math, retreating in 2015 from an integrated math in which "traditional" algebra and geometry courses became Math I, Math II, Math III, and Math IV. The melded classes incorporated ideas from algebra, geometry, and statistics each year instead of separating the content into distinct courses under the contention that real-world applications of math concepts don't require "Algebra I" skills or "Sophomore Geometry" level knowledge but intersections of all forms of math.

Georgia adopted the integrated approach in 2005, citing its success in many high-achieving countries. But integrated math never won over teachers, students or their parents.  In a 2014 survey, 84 percent of Georgia teachers surveyed said they were not in favor of the integrated model and wanted to return to the more "traditional" approach.

One reason for the teacher antipathy was likely the lack of indepth and comprehensive training in how to teach integrated math.  The state did not invest sufficient funds in training. A chief critic of integrated math was former Fulton Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa, who, in 2014, said,  "My fear is we're creating a generation of kids who don't like math, who are scared of math, who are having a hard time stitching together these concepts because their teachers have a hard time stitching together these concepts.”

In an essay for Get Schooled, a Georgia high school valedictorian attending at an Ivy League college explained the challenges: “In practice, however, our integrated math curriculum didn't seem logical or helpful. Though the units were supposed to build on each other, they often seemed to jump around aimlessly. This illogical sequencing often led to wasted time. Each year, we'd spend a unit or two on statistics and probability. Instead of progressing with new information, we spent much of our time reviewing the concepts we'd forgotten since our last unit on statistics during the previous school year. This seemed to happen with each new unit we moved to.”

Despite its return to the traditional approach to teaching math favored by teachers and parents, Georgia still grapples with underperformance.  While Georgia students exceeded the national average this year in reading and write on the SAT,  they trailed in math by nine points.

In its annual benchmark report on college readiness released last month, the ACT found only 40 percent of 2018 graduates who took the test -- including Georgia teens -- posted scores indicating they were ready for first-year college algebra. The one-point decline in readiness from 2017 continues a downward trend; in 2012, 46 percent of test-takers earned scores that met or surpassed the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math.

Among the points in the study:

Only about one-quarter of high school seniors are proficient in mathematics, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to the more than one-third who are proficient in reading.

Large proportions of college students are placed into remedial mathematics courses.

Mathematics practices and policies contribute to educational equity gaps, with African American and Latino/Latina students disproportionately judged below proficient or in need of remedial math coursework. 

Calculus remains a gatekeeper for many high school students applying for college. But it's not essential for students in non-STEM fields. A political science or history major, for example, may be better served by statistics.

Traditional math practices appear intended to winnow students out: Only in mathematics, for example, is an accelerated pace needed to reach an Advanced Placement course. 

Though calculus is rarely (if ever) used by doctors, medical schools have traditionally used it as an admissions screen. 

The beliefs that only some people are good at math, that there is a single right way to do math, and that speed is central to math ability interfere with effective learning.

As a remedy, the study cites promising changes in how math is taught, including the integrated approach that Georgia tried and rejected. The study also mentions diversified math pathways where states offer statistics, quantitative reasoning, and mathematics modeling as general education courses.

The study applauds new approaches to how math is both being taught and tested -- less focus on timed problems -- and praises college programs that are eliminating remedial math courses in favor of co-requisite strategies, which place students into college-level courses and provide support to help struggling students through the classes.

“The purpose of math is not to make students’ lives difficult or create artificial barriers to success, but to ‘expand professional opportunity; understand and critique the world; and experience wonder, joy, and beauty,’” Burdman said, referencing a definition from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “Unfortunately, that’s not the experience that many American students are having. Too many people get the message early on that they’re not ‘good at math.’ And the resulting anxiety can permanently limit an individual’s future.”


Reader Comments

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.